Whether or not you’re familiar with the name Tracy Letts, there’s a strong chance that you’ve seen him grace the big and small screen over the years. After all, this actor/playwright has been popping up in some of the most critically acclaimed films of recent years.
Letts appeared in Lady Bird and The Post in 2017. He wrote the plays Bug, Killer Joe, and August: Osage County, all of which were adapted for the big screen. On the small screen, Letts appeared in several episodes of Homeland, Divorce, and The Sinner. And in 2019, you can catch Letts appearing in both Ford v Ferrari and Little Women.
Letts opened up over the phone about his roles in those two 2019 films, what he looks for when reading a screenplay, and his favorite sites in Chicago.
You’re appearing in both Ford v Ferrari and Little Women this fall. These are two very different characters with one having lived in real life. How did you decide to approach the roles of Henry Ford II and Mr. Dashwood?
Well, you start where you always start, which is with the script. I mean, the scripts for both of these films were very good scripts. They were very well written. The character was very clearly delineated on the page, and as an actor, the first question you ask—well, I should say the first question I ask is how can I help tell the story? What’s the way in which I contribute to the story? Both characters interestingly are kind of gateway characters. In other words, they are a person who is a gateway to the protagonist. The protagonist has to get through this person to get what they want. In the case of Ford V Ferrari, it’s a matter of the automobile designers having to negotiate their way past me to make the car they want to make. And in the case of Little Women, I am the gateway for Jo to move into the career she wants. I provided an obstacle for those characters.
The fact that Henry Ford is a real life guy was not—I didn’t have to do a lot of research. Jim Mangold and I decided we didn’t want to do a lot of—there was no reason to attend to the way he looked or spoke. He’s not so well known in the public consciousness that people would have associations with Henry Ford II. So we spent about what was necessary for the theme. What was necessary for the story we were telling. So in some ways the approaches were similar although the characters were in fact very different.
Can you talk about being driven around in the race car by Matt Damon?
It was great fun. Jim Mangold, the director, did a great job at providing us with real tangible concrete stuff we could deal with. We’re not acting with a lot of green screens. There’s not CGI going on. Matt and I really are sitting in a car. We’re being driven by a camera rig—a camera car that has camera on it—called a biscuit, which was designed so it could travel with the horses in Seabiscuit. It’s designed to go very fast. It spun us around the tarmac there and got up to very high speeds—up to 100 miles an hour. They spun us around and threw us around and eventually wheeled around in the place we were in start the scene. The cameras were mounted on the cars—we could just go. We shot the scene most of that day as I recall. It was great fun, that scene. It was great on the page and great fun to play. Matt’s a generous scene partner and we had a good time.
Having worked with Greta Gerwig on both Lady Bird and Little Women, how do you feel she’s grown as a filmmaker?
I think she was already a filmmaker, I think she already knew exactly what she was doing and how she wanted to do it. I think she’s a born filmmaker. She spent a long time studying, learning, and paying attention. When she was acting in film, she spent a long time paying attention to how the filmmaker should respect work we’re achieving their end. When she stepped on the set of Lady Bird, her first film as a solo director, she knew exactly what she was doing. In terms of her growth, I don’t know. Even when she told me she was writing Little Women, and I thought to myself, that’s a bad idea. We’ve seen it done so many times. I don’t know why you’d want to put your wheels on something like that and yet her screenplay is such a great, original, contemporary take on a story we know so well. How she’s grown—I don’t know. She seemed already fully grown to me.
After two films together, would you like to reunite on a third?
I’ll do anything she asks me to do.
The Post felt like such an important film when it came out in 2017. What drew you to the script and can you talk about your experiences working with the likes of Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Steven Spielberg?
That’s what drew me to the film. Not only was it a compelling story—the story of the Pentagon Papers—but it was also the story that needed to be told in that moment and still needs to be told: the story of freedom of the press and the importance of the press when it comes to speaking truth to power. I think we all entered into production knowing that we felt a real sense of urgency about telling that story in this time, in this political moment, but also, of course, what drew me to it was Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks. They’re such great film artists, and I’m so admiring of their work. I had worked with Meryl before on August: Osage County but I had never worked with Tom or Steven. It was just such a thrill to be included in their company and so I leapt at the chance to do that.
You’ve written screenplays yourself but what do you typically look for in a script when deciding on a role?
The first thing is the quality of the writing, particularly writing of of a high quality. I had thrown out scripts before simply because they weren’t well-written on the level of the sentence. They were shot through with spelling errors or typographical errors. There’s a part of me that just feels like well, if you’re not paying attention to that, you’re not going to be paying attention to the big stuff. The first thing I look for is quality of the writing because the second thing I look for is the governing idea. What is this movie about? Why are you making this movie? What’s the story you feel the need to tell? I suppose after that, I look for some sense of style or sense humor. A stylistic idea, a structural idea. I look for something about the writing that that elevates it beyond just a good screenplay and maybe a great screenplay. I would say after all of that, I then look at the character they’re asking me to play, and I look at it and I say, How can I contribute to the story? Sometimes, I can’t. Sometimes, even if all of those other things are in place, I look at it, I go, I don’t know what I have to offer to this. I don’t know that I’m the guy you need for this or I’ve done this before. Why would you want to see me just do some copy of something I’ve done before? If there’s something interesting and original about the character and I’ve ticked the boxes with all of those other things, then I’m in. If you see me in a movie, it’s because I thought the script was good. That’s really the only metric by which I know to choose material.
Is there an actor or filmmaker that you would love to have the opportunity to collaborate with?
That’s such a good question. I don’t know (Laughs). Is there an actor or filmmaker I’d love to have the opportunity to work with? I just watched Escape at Dannemora. Goddamn, that Benicio Del Toro is good. Jesus, that guy’s good. Yeah, I’d love to work with Benicio Del Toro because I think he’s great.
Given that you’ve performed at Steppenwolf for many years, what are some of your favorite things to do in Chicago?
I’ve lived in Chicago for 30 years and that’s my home. I live there still. My wife and I—we go to the Athenian Room to eat the delicious Kalamata chicken. I’m a season ticket holder for the Chicago Cubs so I like to watch a Cubs game. I like to watch a baseball game. It’s a great theater town, not just the not just the big theaters like Steppenwolf and the Goodman but small theaters, too, are really the lifeblood of the theater scene in Chicago—the storefront theaters. We have a 20 month old toddler so getting out to the theater is harder than it used to be. I love being out in Chicago especially when the weather is nice.
Having moved here for improv before weirdly becoming a film critic, I would definitely agree on the theater scene.
I love Second City and iO.
Oh, yeah. I’ve worked at iO. I’ve done improv at iO with my friends, David Pasquesi and T.J. Jagodowski. Great skill building thing and just great fun. I love those guys.
If you weren’t doing scripts or acting, what do you think you would be doing?
Teaching. I think I’d be a teacher. My folks were both teachers. It’s tempting to say something like spy or serial killer but the truth is, I think I’d probably be teaching. Because my folks were teachers and were good teachers, I have such affection for teaching and such respect for the profession. It’s such an important profession that just really suffers from a lack of respect in this country and culture and that’s a shame. I’d be teaching.
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